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I-Team: The Malta Miracle

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

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Cincinnati -- Ivan Voloder was born curly-haired and sweet-cheeked, big brown eyes twinkling in laughter in photos cherished by his mother, Ivana.

It would take the faith of Ivana and her husband Ivitza to endure the next eight years of pain, watching their son suffer from a malady that could have been fixed in a day in Cincinnati.

Ivan was born with Hirschsprung's Disease. It's a rare disorder that affects one in 4,000 children. Missing nerve cells in his intestine meant he couldn't expel his waste normally. He'd need surgery to survive.

The Voloders left their small town in Bosnia and Herzegovina for nearby Sarajevo, where Ivan underwent the first of many surgeries. But instead of fixing the problem, an expert who's reviewed the case says surgeons made errors that left Ivan fighting for his life with severe infections.

Ivana remembers praying one night as she watched him suffer with high fever: "Please, Lord, either take him or leave him to me but help him. Help me."

The next day Ivan's fever broke. But the damage from the surgery was done. Not only would Ivan be in diapers for life, doctors told Ivana, but now he had new complications that allowed the waste to expel from multiple locations constantly and uncontrollably. He would grow up afraid of children’s taunts and adults’ pity.

Ivana's faith wouldn't break. She researched and found there was one doctor, an expert on Hirschsprung's Disease, who had developed a groundbreaking surgery to replace the defective lower intestine with the upper portion that works, oftentimes restoring normal functioning.

That doctor was Alberto Pena, Mexican-born and trained but now practicing as a pediatric surgeon at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Colorectal Center for Children.

For the Voloders, Cincinnati seemed an impossible journey away. That's when the Order of Malta stepped in.

The Knights of Malta formed during the Crusades in Jerusalem. They began as a monastic community and claim to have built the world's first hospital. In time they were forced out of Jerusalem and their subsequent home in Malta. Today, they’re based in Rome, a Sovereign Order with its own government, diplomatic relations with 99 countries and Permanent Observer status at the United Nations.

Membership is exclusive, by invitation only. In Europe, many members belong to noble families. In America, they're movers and shakers: ambassadors, secretaries of state and treasury, CIA directors, and CEO's of huge corporations. All are devoutly Catholic. Pat Buchanan, Lee Iacocca, Joseph Kennedy, Alexander Haig and John Cardinal O'Connor all are or were Knights of Malta.

Cincinnati-area members are equally prominent. Local leader Declan O'Sullivan is a longtime money manager. Tom Cody is Vice Chairman of Macy's. Bill Burleigh was the CEO of E.W. Scripps (owner of WCPO-TV). Robert Castellini owns the Cincinnati Reds. John Tew is a prominent neurosurgeon with the Mayfield Clinic.

The Voloder family had been praying for help, and in the end it was faith that led them to this faithful order. Word of Ivan's condition and needs spread through the churches of Bosnia and reached that country's Ambassador of Malta. He told the head of Germany's Malta delegation, who told his American counterpart at the group's annual pilgrimmage to Lourdes, France. The American president of Malta, in turn, reached out to the Cincinnati delegation of this ancient order.

Declan O'Sullivan says he got an email asking "Who do we know and what can we do?" It turns out plenty.

Malta Member Tom Cody also serves on the Board of Trustees of Children's Hospital. He helped arrange for care. But that was only the beginning.

Once here, the Voloders enjoyed outings to a Kentucky horse farm owned by another Malta member. They spent an evening watching their first baseball game in the Reds owners seats, courtesy of Castellini. And spiritually, they prayed with Malta members. Burleigh arranged for Ivan to be blessed by Bishop Foys of the Covington Archdiocese.

Of course most important was the medical procedure that would change Ivan's life. It took two operations. When Dr. Pena first saw Ivan's medical records from Bosnia he says, "The kind of complications Ivan had are 100% preventable. That should not happen."

So he set out to fix eight years of medical misery. The family stayed at the Ronald McDonald house or with members of the Bosnian community during the four months between surgeries and recuperation.

And it worked. Ivan today has no need for diapers. He’s eating normally, has gained weight and height, and most importantly, is happy playing with children his age, able to go to school with no fear of being teased over his condition.

As Malta member Dr. Tew says, "The child needed special care, and that special place is here in Cincinnati at our Children's Hospital." The hospital’s spokeswoman didn’t want to detail the exact contribution it and Dr. Pena made, but Malta members say it was sizable.

Dr. Tew’s wife and fellow Malta member, Susan Tew, helped teach Ivan and Ivana English while they were here. She says, "It's so life-giving to see what happens when good people do good things for others."

They need only look at Ivan playing soccer with a new friend to see the ultimate miracle. Declan O'Sullivan's wife, Rosemarie, saw the Voloders almost every day during their months in Cincinnati, taking them to doctor's appointments, outings, and praying with the parents during Ivan's proecedures. She says "When I first met Ivan he was behind his mother's skirts and he wouldn't look up and he wouldn't look you in the eye. He was a very sad little boy."

But after surgery, she says, "He looks you in the eye and says hello and sticks out his hand, and his eyes twinkle. It has been a miracle to see."

A miracle provided by a 1000-year-old order able to help a boy from half a world away, all of them sure their faith brought them together.

© 2009 The E.W. Scripps Co.

Author: By Hagit Limor
Source: WCPO
2.0
2.0 from 4 votes
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